Religion Social Justice

Our Powers, Combined: What the Atheist and Feminist Movements Can Learn From Each Other

August 1, 2011

Truthfully, I am hoping that some people cringed when reading the title of this article. As somebody who has grown into both of these movements, I am familiar with this fact: both “atheist” and “feminist” are often treated as “dirty” words, both by people outside of either movement and even sometimes by people in the other movement. To an atheist, feminists can appear to be whiny, self-righteous women who just want to pray to the Goddess for “womyn” power. To a feminist, atheist can appear to be whiny, self-righteous cis-gendered men with no morals.

Obviously, as in everything, stereotypes are rarely (though sometimes) true, but always important to look at and analyze. Instead of seeing atheism and feminism as two separate groups, I tend to look at them as a sort of yin and yang Tao of each other in terms of strengths and weaknesses. As somebody who has put far too much thought into both of these groups and writing about them, I would like to present a primer on each movement, and what they can learn from the other.

A voice for everybody: feminism.

When I was a child, I remember discussing with my peers what Halloween costumes we had picked for the upcoming season. The most interesting to me was always “hippie,” which, of course, meant a costume with bell-bottoms, flowers, a few “peace signs,” and tie-dye clothing. I kind of wish that children dressed up as “feminists” for Halloween, because these costumes would almost certainly be of a women with short hair, dressed in a “power suit” and burning a bra (which, I think, would be the scariest costume many people could think of, and thus very appropriate for Halloween).

To put it simply, a feminist is somebody who believes in the idea of freedom of opportunity, freedom of choice and other forms of equality for persons of all genders. Feminists can be of varying levels of “active” in the community. Today, feminism is very encompassing. Persons of all genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, classes, political leanings, levels of disability and more call themselves “feminists,” due in no small part to the inclusionality of feminists and their causes. For example: when it comes to reproductive rights (a classic example of a feminist cause) feminists have cited many different reasons for supporting reproductive rights legislation that doesn’t stop at “freedom to choose” or “it’s a woman’s right,” but is often extended to point out that the persons who are most negatively affected by a lack of reproductive rights legislation are those who have a lower-income and those who belong to a racial or ethnic minority group.

Skepticism: What feminism can learn from atheism.

Feminism itself can encompass many different causes that can be political, social, economic, and more. There is quite a bit of overlap between sociology and feminism, and much of feminist and gender theory is informed by sociological paradigms. While this is quite legitimate, arguments of the sociological persuasion can sometimes tend to be generalizations based on anecdotal evidence, much like the generalization that I am making right now. This isn’t to say that there isn’t great, scientific, quantitative and peer-reviewed research on sociology, especially in the areas of sex and gender; this is only to say that there isn’t enough (though could there ever be enough?) to be utilized well in debates.

Obviously, as an atheist, I treasure skepticism. It is my mechanism by which I make my own choices. An important part of skepticism is the act of searching for truth, facts, figures, and anything else to help make up our own decisions and inform opinions instead of just “forming” opinions. Within feminism, skepticism could be utilized greatly to give more “legitimate” weight within debates. While debates “should not” be considered completely essential to feminism, until patriarchal societies are not the norm, they are an integral part of consciousness raising on a person-to-person basis.

The odds are statistically insignificant, so there: The relative merits of atheism

When I was younger, I attended a youth group weekly at my church. At one point, an analogy was proposed regarding faith: we don’t think about if a chair will hold us up when we sit down, we just do it. This is because we have faith in the chair, and it’s this degree of certainty that we feel for the chair that we also feel for God. A few months ago, I remembered this, and immediately my mind responded: “Alright, is the argument that we have faith in the chair from anecdotal evidence? Because we have sat in it so many times that we know it will hold us up? That God’s chair-lap is the same, because He has ‘held us up’? Well, everybody knows that anecdotal evidence is the weakest of evidences. Furthermore, I have faith less in the chair and more in the engineer and carpenter or manufacturer that I know crafted this chair, who I can trace and speak to directly. And don’t tell me that you can also speak directly to God because if that isn’t the last ‘acceptable’ mental illness then I don’t know what is…”

I don’t bring this up merely to showcase my tendency to think like an asshole, nor my loquacious tendencies (as if you hadn’t already noticed this), but to illustrate the essential aspect of atheism: questioning. Skepticism is the driving force of atheism and godlessness. Essentially, atheism is a lack of belief in a deity. Atheists can come to this conclusion through many routes, but most tend to have an inquiring and questioning nature in common. There is a large overlap of the science and atheist communities (though not all atheists are scientists and vice versa) for this reason.

Inclusivity: What atheism can learn from feminism.

Atheism is not, in general, known for its inclusively; after all, its definition is about exclusion of the idea of a deity, and so it has the tendency to sometimes stick within its own narrow definition. If you look at the more vocal, published authors within the godless community, you will find a lot of homogeneity in the way of white, heterosexual cis-gendered males with a lack of tact. This can be explained by many different factors (e.g.: atheists tend to be involved in the sciences, which are largely male-dominated due to various societal conditioning mechanisms; cis-gendered females tend to be more rewarded by society for their religiosity; etc.) but the point still stands: the atheist community is less of a melting pot and more of a, well, slab of ground beef.

While there have been some recent attempts at inclusivity (e.g.: most atheism conferences now include a panel about “diversity”; also, secular humanism, which is an offshoot of godlessness/freethinking/etc., tends to be more inclusive by its nature of being humanity-driven and interested in positive change) the atheist community, as a whole, still lacks a diversity of voices as well as a genuine interest in causes, campaigns, etc. While there are some nearly-universal atheistic causes such as being pro-vaccine, on the whole atheists seem happy to research, write, debunk, and then sit back and smile to themselves about their own cleverness. What the atheist community could certainly learn from feminism is the idea of inclusivity. I do agree that one can be “good without God,” as the common atheistic trope goes, but I believe that one can be better with a humanistic and caring attitude toward life.

All together now: in conclusion, perhaps.

In the Tao of philosophical, social, and political movements, atheism and feminism are complementary. It is my personal hope that one day the lines can blur just a bit, that their Venn diagram begins to overlap just a bit more, and that, ultimately, a hybrid atheism-feminism android system of mass awareness comes to wreak havoc on patriarchy and theistic belief alike. Or maybe, that’s just me.

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